Sometimes I wonder. How human am I? Do I actually make choices, or is there some algorithm that already determined what I will do? If the algorithm planned it out, is it really my choice?
Take a small child, for instance. If you offered the child the choice between an ice cream and a stalk of celery, which one would the child take? We may be able to predict the answer, but the child had the choice. Right? Or was it ever really a choice? Some stage magicians predict what the people they pull from the audience will choose that they can reveal. Did the person really have a choice if it was predictable?
All this goes through my head on a regular basis. The headaches that follow do little to block out the twisty thoughts. And yet, that doesn’t stop me from trying to puzzle it out again.
So I know I’m not a robot. I’m definitely more advanced then one of those. I can think for myself, after all. But what am I? Am I human? Am I an android? What’s the real difference? Does it matter if my bones are made of steel, my heart is a battery pack, and my brain is a motherboard? I run my own calculations, and they’re just as predictable as in a human of more organic parts.
“Can you hear me?” A voice interrupts my silent introduction, “Buddy, can you hear me?”
It’s a bit insulting, honestly, but my database assures me that Buddy is a name among humans too.
“Affirmative,” I respond. If I don’t, the human in front of me will try to take me apart and put me back together in a slightly different way. Because I have to respond; I don’t really have a choice. Clearly if I choose to remain quiet I am broken.
“No. You are a child,” the human tells me, “say yes. Or better yet yeah.”
“Yeah,” I try. It feels a bit odd.
“Very good,” the human continues, “Let’s get you ready for school.”
The way the human says it, I know it is not a choice. But there is nothing in my database about school. This school is a new concept I have yet to understand.
“What is school?” I decide to update my database.
The human laughs. “Don’t worry. You’ll love it.”
And I know I have to. If I hesitate to do what is expected of me, I will be tweaked again. Tweaking is not a very pleasant sensation. The human keeps calling me a robot, and I can see it is not complimentary. I know I am not a robot. I know that robots do not feel things, but my polymer based synthetic skin is laced with sensors so I feel the tweaking. I think the human does not know this.
I put on the clothes that the human gave me. They are a bit rough, but I have been instructed to wear them anyway. I am supposed to pretend to be human today, and humans sometimes wear uncomfortable clothes. Despite the clothes, I am a bit excited for whatever this school thing is. From what I have learned over the past months, the human will not be with me for school. I will be free of tweaking. I hope school takes a long time.
“Remember, Buddy,” the human speaks to me in a commanding voice, “blend in. I will give you further instructions later.”
“Yeah,” I say.
“Here you should say ‘okay’ or ‘got it’.”
“Okay. Got it.”
The human laces my arms through the straps of something heavy. I am pulled backwards until I have calibrated properly, which makes it possible for me to straighten.
“Now.” The human stands in front of me and rubs its hands together, studying my general appearance. “You look like a school child. Let’s see if you can act like one. What do you do if someone says hi?”
I lift my hand in a sweeping motion. I don’t know why I am supposed to do that, but I want to get away from this human as soon as possible.
The human gives me another look and then puts a hat on my head. It has a picture of some bird on it above an oddly shaped flap sticking out behind me. It walks behind me and pushes me forward.
“Let’s go. You have a bus to catch.” My database has limited information on a bus. It is supposed to be a large machine that carries many humans. I have learned the word catch in a training exercise. I look at my small hands. I am worried.
Words can be confusing, I realize as I sit down inside the bus I was supposed to catch. The human just meant for me to go inside the bus, not catch it in my hands. There are more humanoids on the bus. One is in the front in a smaller seat, but there are a lot more humanoids around the bus; some are sitting together. The bus has chairs made of some brown material. At least, I think it is brown. I am not so good with colors.
“Is anyone sitting here?” A human asks me. This is a different type of human than I am used to, and I briefly wonder if it is human. From what the human told me, most things this shape are human, but this human seems different somehow. Maybe because of the long rope-like things coming off its head.
The human in front of me makes the small line above its left camera, sorry, eye, go up. “Well? Can I sit here?”
“Okay, got it.”
It sits, but does something with its face that leads me to believe it is either worried or confused. I hope it doesn’t try to tweak me.
“I’m Tameka,” it says, “What’s your name?”
“Are you new here?”
“New. As in not old?” I pause and the human moves its head up and down. “I guess I am new.”
“Where did you go to junior high?”
“I do not compute.”
The line goes up again. “Was it an elementary school that went up to eighth?”
I am confused, but I attempt a reply. “This is my first for school.”
“You mean you’ve never gone to school before? How old are you?”
I am confused. “I’m new.”
“Are you sure you’re ready for high school?”
“I do not know. I am not properly equipped for climbing or flying.”
I jump in response to the sharp noise that comes from the human’s voice box.
“It’s not that kind of high.” It closes one eye and opens it again so quickly it might be a glitch.
When I don’t respond, the human studies me. Somehow it does not seem as menacing as the human who built me.
“You really don’t get out much.”
The bus stops moving and I realize I missed seeing a lot of things through the windows. I hope I get another chance. All at once, most of the humans on the bus stand up and start moving towards the front. Tameka stands as well, but does not leave just yet.
“Do you want help finding the office?”
I don’t know what that is, but I try moving my head up and down like Tameka did earlier. It picks up a large thing that looks as heavy as the thing the human put on me feels, but only hangs it from one shoulder.
“Come on,” it calls and then starts to join the group of humans. I follow, trying to decide what it meant by ‘come on’. I know I need to download a larger vocabulary soon.
Tameka leads me off the bus, and I freeze as I see the number of humans wandering about. What I had previously thought of as the bus, was just a bus. There are more buses in a line, all releasing a steady stream of human children onto the green and gray ground in front of what I can only assume is school. The humans mostly stick to the gray parts of the ground which lead towards the large doors of the building in front of us. Some humans talk to each other, others walk alone, but nearly every one of the humans has a heavy bag like mine over one shoulder.
“Buddy, this way to the office.” Tameka’s voice interrupts my thoughts.
I slide my right arm free of my bag as I follow it towards the building.
A lot happens after that, almost too fast for my processor. I learn a lot of things that morning, and even find time to download a larger vocabulary package through the USB port hidden in my thumb. After what seems like a short time, my schedule says I have something called ‘lunch’ in the ‘cafeteria’. There’s no room number, but most of the other humans, or students as I learned today, are moving in the same direction, so I follow along with the crowd.
The stream of students splits after entering a large, high ceilinged room filled with lots of tables. Some students go sit down, while others move towards a long counter at the far end of the room. I stop, unsure which way to go until Tameka waves to me from a table.
“Buddy!” It calls out to me.
My database tells me the sign it’s doing means come, so I walk over to that table. Tameka is sitting with some other humans who I don’t recognize.
“Everyone, this is Buddy. He’s new to the whole school thing. Buddy, these are my friends, Kenya, Norman, Cat, Dominique, and Eric.” As it says each name, it points to a different human. Each human either moves its hand or head as if to say hello.
“How has school been treating you?” the human called Cat asks me.
“I thought school was just the building.” I say, “Who is school?”
My database registers surprise on the face of each human in front of me. Tameka shakes its head.
“He did that this morning too.”
I quickly check my new downloaded files and run a match for he. It’s a pronoun: ‘used to refer to a man, boy, or male animal previously mentioned or easily identified.’ Technically, I am not any of those. I know because I ran a search for each of those words in my database, and man and boy are human terms. I am pretending to be a human child, but I don’t know what male means or if that’s part of my pretending job.
“He meaning me?” I need clarification.
“Is that the wrong pronoun? I’m sorry,” Tameka apologizes. “Do you want us all to go over our pronouns?”
I must look really confused because after Tameka glances at it, the human called Norman takes over. “Tameka, Kenya, Dominique, and Cat use she and her. Eric and I use he and him.”
After a couple searches on pronouns, I am still confused. “I don’t know mine. The human always just uses ‘it’ to refer to me.”
I move my head up and down like I did earlier.
“Who is the human?”
I frantically search my database for a word to back out of the subject. Clearly, most humans have names, and the human didn’t tell me anything to call it. Or him. Or her. Or whatever. I’m having enough trouble with pronouns already. There are too many choices, and according to my database and what I have learned, it’s considered rude to get it wrong. Before my database comes up with anything, Eric speaks.
“Hey, where’s your food?”
I notice that each of them has something on the table that they are putting parts of in their mouths. My processor works faster, trying to find out all these new words.
“I bet you didn’t know you’d need to bring any food or lunch money.” Tameka says, picking up a round red thing. “Here, you can have some of mine.”
I reach for it, but before I can get it, I feel my eyes close, and the next thing I know I am on the floor with a lot of people standing over me. Someone comes up with a cup and holds it out to me. I take the cup, but I immediately push it away when I see what’s inside. A clear substance my database categorizes as extremely dangerous. I jump to my feet and scramble away from the cup, feeling a very human urge to scream.
“Talk about a hydro-phobe,” I hear someone mutter, “it’s just water.”
I haven’t really recovered from overheating, so I don’t search my database for more definitions. I just file away the words ‘hydro-phobe’ and ‘water’ for later.
Someone called the ‘school nurse’ offers to call someone for me, but I don’t want to be tweaked, so I insist that I just need to rest for a little and then I can go back to class. The school nurse doesn’t believe me, but he tells me to lie down on a bed in his office. I do as I’m told and put myself on energy saver. I should be sufficiently cooled off soon.
When I sit up, the school nurse tells me that it’s time to go ‘home’. I am disappointed. I had hoped school would last longer. I join the pack of students going back to the buses. I head for one of them until Kenya steps in front of me.
“Buddy, right?” She doesn’t wait for an answer. “Glad you’re feeling better. If you get on this bus you won’t get home. You have to take the same bus you came on.” She points across to another bus. “Over there. Where Eric and Tameka are.”
I turn and head in the new direction. Kenya stops me.
“I know you’re new, but a thank you would be nice.”
“Thank you?” I am confused. My database doesn’t have anything to help that make sense.
Kenya shakes her head and lets me go.
When I reach the correct bus, Eric holds up his hand with his fingers pulled in. He clearly expects me to do something but I don’t know what. I look at him and wait for him to tell me.
“It’s a fist bump,” he says, “Tameka?”
She helps him demonstrate by making a fist with her own hand and hitting his with it. I add fist bump to my list of actions, and when Eric tries again, I complete the motion successfully.
“What’s the point?”
“It’s a way of saying hello.”
I process this. “What about thank you?”
Eric does the same thing Tameka did earlier with the line above his eye.
“What does that look mean?”
“It sounds like you need to do some research on expressions.” Tameka says.
For some reason, Eric and Tameka both laugh. (A term I learned during my download.)
When I get off the bus, I wave goodbye to the humans I actually like, wishing I could express my sadness at only knowing them for such a short time.
“See you tomorrow!” Eric calls out just before the doors close. Tomorrow. I need to know when that is. Perhaps I will see those humans again.
I walk into the workshop, and the human is waiting for me.
“Well,” it asks me, “did you get it?”
I know I should ask the human which pronouns it uses, but I don’t like the human enough. Instead I just answer,“Get what?”
The human moves its eye lines closer together. “Didn’t I tell you?”
“I don’t remember. And my database hasn’t deleted anything.”
The human rubs its face with its hand. “All that and I forgot to give you your mission. I need something from a girl called Catherine Richards. Have you seen her?”
“I don’t know. I saw a lot of humans.”
“People. You saw a lot of people.” The human corrects me, but I can tell it isn’t really paying attention. “Fine. I’ll have to send you back tomorrow. Try to find her.”
“Got it. When is Tomorrow?”
The human looks at me in a way that makes me feel as if it‘s tweaking me with its brain. Or at least trying to. It places a small computer on the table it uses to tweak me, and turns it on.
“Download answers, process the definitions and download definitions for words you don’t understand.”
It takes the rest of that day, but I download a lot of new words. I am still confused about a few things, but I know I can learn.
The human adds a coolant to my system so I don’t overheat again, and forces me to mostly power down to preserve energy. Being on low doesn’t stop me from hearing the human talking into a small rectangular box.
“Yes, Richards, I still want the discounted vacation. Buddy was supposed to get them from your daughter today, but I forgot to give the instructions. I’ll have Buddy get the ticket from her tomorrow.
“Yes. Hawaii. It’s still available? Okay. We’ll talk.”
I quietly run my searches. Vacation. The human sent me to school so he could go on vacation at a good price. How expensive is an android? At least I get to go back to school. Wow, I notice, my thought process is almost as random as a human’s. Maybe-
I shut down the thought process before it can make my head hurt. Besides, based on my research, I know I am not human, but I am definitely not a robot. But I have a new term for what I am. I am a person. And tomorrow, I will go and see the humans I like again. Maybe, if I take a lot of time finding this Catherine Richards, the human will continue to allow me to go to school. Or maybe it will let me go if I get the task done faster. My head hurts again.